Book Review

Winter Journey by Eva Figes

1967 and old men are walking in winter

Eva Figes was one of the writers affiliated with the group known increasingly as “the experimentalists“. Winter Journey was published in 1967 and was Figes’ second novel. It won the Guardian Fiction Prize, whatever that was.

I’d never read any Eva Figes before this and, like Alan Burns, I was inspired to read her because of the way Joe Darlington wrote about her writing in his phenomenal pop academic- literary-history masterpiece The Experimentalists. Unlike Alan Burns, though, there isn’t currently a publisher offering big discount deals on Eva Figes books, and it may well be that none of her novels are currently in print (If I remember to, I’ll look into this when I’m not voice-to-texting while walking my dog around the neighbourhood).

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1967 was a time when literary experimentation was rife, and a psychologising of existence was very much happening on the London scene of the day.

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I recently read (and excerpted here) a 1973 interview between BS Johnson and Alan Burns, during which Johnson stated that no writers should be composing as if Joyce hadn’t existed, and Winter Journey very much feels post-Joycean, which is both its strength and its weakness.

This book is very reminiscent of 1920s stylings (think Mrs. Dalloway, Ulysses) and it isn’t necessarily offering anything fresh in terms of style compared to these earlier novels, though the focus on working class lives and poverty and poverty-adjacent existences in Britain in the postwar period is (imo) a more interesting use of the form than its usual middle class obsession.

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The novel, loosely, tells a narrative about a widowed old man named Janus (double-faced, baby!) who is living alone in a rented room. Hated by his landlord, deaf, increasingly unwell and unwilling and unable to interact with other people, he decides to go on a journey to visit a) a woman his own age who was either a former lover or someone who could/should have been a former lover; or b) his now-dead son’s widow and his grandchild.

By the end of the book, I had no idea which of those he was walking towards, but I felt like the old man Janus didn’t know either.

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Perspective shifts from first person to third person, sometimes the reader is in the mind of Janus, sometimes his landlord, his daughter-in-law, his dead wife… the narrative moves from the present to past, from place to place, even briefly to the perspective of other working-class strangers living in his part of London who are not within his circle.

Though this high modernist structure isn’t something I’m a massive fan of, I certainly enjoyed this more than I enjoyed the (slightly earlier) Beckett novels I’ve read, though it may well be that this response would not have been Figes’ intended reaction…

Even with those structural/stylistic antecedents writ large, the narrative of Winter Journey is able to feel fresh, emotive and powerful despite the effects of time making its stream-of-consciousness feel derivative and dated.

Winter Journey offers engaging perspectives on ageing, dying and illness, and on the cruelty of landlordism and the privatised housing system more generally. This novel is a pretty stark and bleak reminder that many of the problems we struggle to deal with in the present day have been problems for a very long time indeed.

Solid modernist stuff, though not my favourite text from the experimentalist period that I’ve read, but certainly good enough for me to read another Eva Figes novel at a later date.

Bye bye.

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